Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Must See TV

As you may have heard, the CBS program 60 Minutes will be airing a segment this Sunday, January 9th, on the subject of predatory gambling - specifically slot machines.

I've known about this for some time, but the cynic in me has refused to believe it was going to actually happen until I saw it for myself.  Because, first there was the build up, the buzz, the speculation.  I counted the hits on the web site, then Kathleen Norbut had a phone interview. But it all seemed to go nowhere.

Then, we got word that it was going to air in June.  Then it was postponed to October.  Then, it would happen sometime before the end of the year.  So I guess I just started to assume it would never air, or perhaps, it just was a figment of my imagination that an investigative news program as outstanding as 60 Minutes would take on this subject when so many others have managed to ignore.

Then, yesterday, I got confirmation that the show will, in fact, be airing this Sunday.

Still, I don't know what they're going to cover in the segment, and having watched how the media has covered this topic for the last years, I have full reason to expect a softball fluff piece that comes down easy on the predatory gambling industry and the politicians who love them.  As an added bonus, they could rub some salt in the wound by painting predatory gambling opponents as preachy moralists hell-bent on screwing our fellow Americans out of casino jobs and tax revenue.

But, since 60 Minutes has devoted a great deal of it's air time these past 43 years to interviewing whistle blowers, exposing frauds and uncovering shady boiler room operations, I've decided to be something I'm usually not when it comes to gambling coverage - I'm hopeful.

I've watched 60 Minutes all my life.  I know that Morely Safer has always worn checkered shirts and what Mike Wallace looked like with eyebrows.  I remember when a young Meredith Vieira started as a correspondent alongside and equally young Steve Kroft, and how she was fired over a controversy involving the need to breast feed her baby on set.  I remember that, before Andy Rooney, 60 Minutes featured a fun two-person debate at the end of each program called Point CounterPoint, which became the basis for the infamous SNL sketch where Dan Akroyd would preface every argument by calling Jane Curtain an "ignorant slut".  I was there, a sixth grader on the playground trying to drum up some concern over the crisis in Cambodia at recess because of a 60 Minutes episode.

Then there were those dark days in the mid-90's when pressure from their parent company forced 60 Minutes to put the kibosh on an important upcoming segment revealing how the Tobacco industry was attempting to make cigarettes more addictive.  And perhaps that is where my trepidation comes from.  Because certainly, slot machines and cigarettes share a similar business model.

At the State House hearing on expanded gambling last summer, a crew from 60 Minutes was there.  In fact, some of them were sitting behind a group of us from the anti-predatory gambling organization USS-Mass.  At several points during the day, State Senator Marc Pacheco made glowing comments about what he felt was the fine and impartial work of New England's own infamous gambling industry evangelist, UMass Dartmouth Prof. Clyde Barrow - followed invariably by the audible sarcasm of Team USS-Mass.

One of the Senator's misinformed comments in particular was so comically inaccurate that it produced an impromptu burst of laughter from our row.  And while the Senator looked down at us, typically perplexed as to what was so funny, a member of the 60 Minutes crew sensed a potential lead, scribbling the professor's name in his notebook.  I know this because I turned around to witness it, and noticed he'd misspelled Barrow's name.  For a moment, I thought to whisper the correct spelling to the young man behind me.  Then I came to my senses.

The 60 Minutes crew left immediately after the testimony of MIT professor Natasha Schull and Harvard/Mass General Researcher Dr. Hans Brieter, both of whom did an incredible job that day - their fourth time testifying and answering the questions for the Mass. legislature regarding the addictive and deceptive features of the modern slot machine, and it's dramatic effects on human brain chemistry.

I have no real idea what the 60 Minutes segment is going to cover, but I hope they include some video of our Mass. senators and congressmen in action, lapping up the promises of the industry while paying halfhearted lip service to those who offered up figures on crime and addiction and quality of life.  I hope they mention the babies and children left to fend for themselves at home, or on in casino parking lots or on side streets while their  parents are lost in time, succumbing to a device purposely designed to play them to extinction.

I hope they will include interviews with both Schull and Brieter, and others, like Les Bernal who formed and who brought together a committed, nationwide network of expanded gambling opponents.  And I hope they take a few moments to talk to Professor  Sandra Adell of the University of Wisconsin, who wrote the compelling Confessions of a Slot Machine Queen.  I hope they make the point that our state governments are partnering with an industry that plays it's citizens for suckers.

I know they'll tell us how many billions the industry rakes in each year, and how much it creates in revenue.  But I hope they'll be fair and show the other side.  The side which the media has neglected to mention for over 30 years - until a majority have come to see the gambling industry as some sort of harmless adult Disney World and a welcome purveyor of job creation and economic stimulus. (As long as it's  not in their town.)

And then I remember the member of the Town Democratic Committee who admitted to me one sunny day as I tried to get her to read a pamphlet, that she didn't care if slot machines caused a new type of addiction.  "We need the money", she said.

We need the money.

So, I wonder if the 60 Minutes interview will be able to change minds, or even alter the debate. Because when it comes to greed, even the greed for funding to support the good things, for the causes we care about, we can all easily develop a blind spot.

And that's the wall that keeps hitting us in the face.

I don't know how some people have lasted as long as they have in this fight.  I'm am personally so fried after only three and a half years that I'm crisp on the edges and dust in the middle.  After some of the things I've heard and seen, after the experience of being an activist in a cause a lot of people either think is either lost or don't believe in at all, after all the time spent, seemingly for nothing... after all the research, the writing, the anxiety, the personalities, the juggling, the traveling, the urgency, the fighting, all the beating my head against that wall... after all the believing that my country, my state wouldn't allow something so wrong... after all that time being on edge, being ignored, being so emotionally invested, so determined and yet so repeatedly disappointed in ways I never could have imagined as I watched a Cape Cod Indian Tribe celebrating something called 'federal recognition' on the news one late night in February of 2007. 

It was a long time ago that I could count on being recharged by the electricity of my new circle, my new colleagues, new adventures, new trials, all working, laughing, planning, all on the same course.  Those were days when the time flew, that effort could resemble pleasure, when words trickled effortlessly from my fingertips, expectations were few and rewards were plentiful.  And yes, there were bad times as well, but there was also support.  There was always a willing shoulder or open ear.  The book was open to just one page - and we all were on it.

That time didn't last long, but the longing for it did and kept me going for longer than it should.

I have a friend who often reminds me that Martin Luther King would take an entire month off every year to rest and re-charge.  Since he was the head of a activist movement that changed the world, I took that to mean that I should only need the odd afternoon off, maybe to catch a movie or treat myself to something nice.  But I've learned it doesn't work that way.  Greetings from Burnoutville.

So like I said, this time, I'm hopeful.  Hopeful that 60 Minutes can, with this story, make a difference in the way the industry operates, and the way the media presents it.  And the way we've begun to perceive it.  And I'm thankful, desperately thankful, that they took on this complex, neglected subject.  Thankful it was 60 Minutes above all other news programs, because nobody does it better.  And hopeful that fifteen minutes on National TV can do more than I have personally accomplished in all these sometimes exhilarating, mostly exhausting years.

But I'm thankful mostly that this Sunday night, after more than 30 years, the opponents and victims of predatory gambling are finally getting a shot at a real soapbox.

Because we have one hell of a story to tell...